The Mira Rang Shala folk dancing theatre was the result of a local project to keep Rajasthani folk culture alive by making some money out of it, and the resulting company is housed in a large concrete amphitheatre on the outskirts of the city. When we arrived we had a drink outside before taking our seats and waiting for the show to begin. There was a delay of half an hour before the first set of male dancers appeared, wearing bright turbans and heavy make up. While they danced, the music was played live by a small band seated in a balcony above the stage, and a young girl sang the lyrics to the songs through a microphone. In between the dances a man with an incredibly monotonous voice announced the title and meaning of the next dance. The last of the dances was by far the most spectacular and well known, in which the most skilful of the women dancers balanced a high stack of metal pots on her head and then performed a number of amazing tricks such as stamping on a mound of broken glass and walking on the edges of swords. Her act was so incredible and at times appeared so painful that there were moments when I almost could not watch.When the show was over we realised that the delays meant that we were going to be very late meeting Sam, George and Emma at the rooftop restaurant and we sped back across town in the rickshaw. When we arrived we found that they had waited for us and we all ordered a meal. We discovered that all of us would probably be in the desert city of Jaisalmer, famous for its camel safaris, at the same time and we decided that if possible we would all go on a camel safari together. When we got back to the hotel we arranged a time and place to meet in Jaisalmer, after they had gone south to Bombay and Raphael and I had gone North West to Jodhpur.
Day 8 - Thursday 11th July.After Raphael and I had found that our routes through India were almost identical and decided to travel together we had both been in agreement that if we did want to see different places, we could always meet up again later on, and that was exactly what we did. Raphael was going to a nearby hill station called Mt. Abu, where the climate was a bit cooler, and I was heading North West to Ranakpur, site of the largest Jain temple in India. We agreed to meet later in Jodhpur and from there we would travel on to Jaisalmer and do the camel safari. So I got up early and went with Mukesh and Raphael to the private bus station where the deluxe bus to Mt. Abu was waiting. After that, Mukesh showed me to the government bus station where I would be leaving on a rickety public bus which would take me to Ranakpur. I hoped to be back in Udaipur the same day but decided that if necessary I could stay in Ranakpur overnight, because of this I didn't have to carry my heavy pack and was travelling light.When I started my degree and had some spare time I had started to learn Hindi, but had had to give up when I had too much university work to do. However, I had got as far as learning to read and write the Devenagari script that Hindi is written in and I could still remember most of what I had learnt. This skill now came in very handy as it enabled me to read the destinations written on the sides of the buses and make sure that I did not miss the one I was supposed to be on.The bus journey took four hours, the bus sounded like it would fall apart at any minute and was very cramped. In addition I was deafened every few seconds by the driver sounding the unbelievably loud horn. We stopped many times just on the way out of Udaipur city and at one of these, a man with a vacant expression on his face boarded, accompanied by a young woman who started to distribute cards to everyone on the bus, including me. The card stated in Hindi and English that the man was a Brahmin who had no tongue and it went on to list the terrible suffering his family had to endure because of several other tragedies that had hit them, the note had been signed (supposedly) by a doctor.The trip was very colourful, passengers were continually getting off at various small villages and new ones boarding; women in bright saris with golden ear and nose rings and men with carefully trimmed moustaches and tightly wound white turbans. We passed first over a plateau area of fields, punctuated by the occasional small temple, before the road wound up into the Aravali range of mountains and then descended in an equally tight series of hairpins into Ranakpur. Considering that it is the location of India's largest Jain temple, Ranakpur is a tiny place, so small in fact that when I got off the bus I thought that they had dropped me in the middle of nowhere. To my left was a wide but completely dry river bed, and on the right was a fly ridden tea shop, and that was it, there seemed to be nothing else. However, a short walk up the road revealed a sign for the Hotel Shilpi, which was reached by a flight of steps that lead up from the road a bit further on.The Hotel had a strange atmosphere, it was as if no one had stayed there for years, but presumably it was a lot busier during the tourist season. The staff were there, although they were all sitting outside playing cards. I decided that I would stay the night in Ranakpur, and so I got a room for Rs 150 which was clean but very basic.I then set off to find the Jain temple, having first removed all of the leather items that I was carrying, since these are not allowed inside the temple itself. The temple had been obscured from view behind the tea shop when I arrived and a short walk back down the road brought me to its gates. The grounds were spacious, and contained several low blocks, mainly offices and what I presumed were dormitories for visiting worshippers. Large groups of big grey Langur monkeys were roaming about and I saw one of them jump up and bite a woman who was standing outside one of the anonymous buildings. After paying for a ticket for my camera in one of the offices, I was directed to read the list of rules which had been painted on a board nearby. As well as a prohibition on leather items, which I was already aware of, was a rule which forbade photography of the idols inside the main building.At first I walked all around the temple, to find the best angles from which to take some photographs, although I stopped dead in my tracks when I came to one wall which was home to a huge wild bees nest. During my walk I noticed that there were at least two smaller temples within the compound and one of these was very photogenic, standing as it did behind a large tree covered in pink blossom.A smaller Jain temple in the grounds.Finally, I entered the temple itself (called the Chaumukha (four faced) temple, dedicated to Adinath and built in 1439) and was faced with the stunning sight of 1444 marble pillars, all intricately carved with tiny figures, no two pillars being of the same design. Around the walls in recessed alcoves were the statues of the many Jain deities, their eyes were coated in a silver foil and this gave them a very sinister appearance as they stared out from the shadows.The Chaumukha Jain Temple at Ranakpur, India.Almost as soon as I had entered the building, I was approached by a man in a long white robe who had a yellow tilak mark on his forehead. We shook hands and he introduced himself as Prakesh, the high priest, and he went on to take me on a guided tour. I couldn't quite believe that the high priest himself showed visitors around, I could only think that it was like arriving at Canterbury Cathedral and being taken round by the Archbishop! As well as explaining the Jain pantheon, Prakesh pointed out that one of the pillars was leaning slightly to one side. This, he said, had been done deliberately to show that man cannot achieve perfection, only God can do that.Pillar detail at Chaumukha Temple, Ranakpur.As Prakesh finished his talk I was amazed to see Dominic appear from behind one of the marble pillars. He told me that he too had just come from Udaipur but that he had been given a lift on a motorbike, rather than taking the dilapidated government bus. One of the good things about travelling through Rajasthan is that you frequently bump into people who you have met before, because everyone is following more or less the same route through the state.I thanked Prakesh for the tour and gave him a donation for the temple funds. He then told me that there would be a big ceremony at the temple later in the evening and that I was welcome to come along, even though officially the temple was closed to tourists at 5 p.m. I accepted the invitation and then carried on wandering round the temple taking photographs. It was then that I noticed that one of the women worshippers who were in the temple had covered her mouth with a strip of cloth. I had seen a photograph of this practice before; strict Jains are totally against the taking of life, even accidentally, and therefore brush the ground in front of them and cover their mouths to avoid killing insects by walking on them or by inhalation. After this, I was approached by an old man who, after I had given him a few Rupees, anointed me with my own yellow tilak mark.I returned to the hotel to buy some mineral water and rest for a short while. However, it was not long before I set off again. I was hoping to climb up into the hills that overlook the temple because I thought this might allow me to take some very good photographs. The first problem with this plan came when I had to edge my way past a large group of monkeys that were blocking the stairs from the hotel down to the road, I was worried that they might attack me but luckily they ran off. As it turned out, reaching any point of the hills that overlooked the temple was impossible because the lower slopes were overgrown with thick thorn bushes. After edging my way round a couple of cows with enormous horns and getting scratched to pieces by the spiny bushes, I gave up and returned to the hotel.I arrived in the temple grounds later on, just before the ceremony was due to start. Unfortunately I had brought my camera with me because I didn't want to leave it unguarded in the hotel room. As I approached the temple I was stopped by an official who objected to my camera, even though I explained that I did not intend to take any photographs of the ceremony. He then started to mutter something about tourists not being allowed to visit after 5 p.m. I explained that I had been invited to attend the temple by the high priest. I don't think that he believed me and insisted that we go and find Prakesh to get his approval for my visit.We found him nearby, sitting under the shade of a tree and after he had listened to the official he must have told him to leave me alone and I went back to the temple.I don't know if Prakesh had invited any other westerners to attend the ceremony (I expect that he did) but in the event I was the only non-Jain present. At first nothing happened, in fact the place was deserted and so I sat quietly, watching the reflections of the candle flames flickering on the white marble, all the time being watched by the silvery eyes that lurked in the shadows. As the sun started to set it cast a beautiful golden light on the pillars and the whole temple felt very peaceful and relaxing and I was soon lost in my own thoughts.Suddenly the air was filled with noise, they sounded the main bell which can be heard five kilometres away and the building resounded with the beating of a multitude of drums. This lasted for a few minutes and then the sound died as suddenly as it had begun, and the evening light started to fade.
Day 9 - Friday 12th July.I got up at eight, checked out of the hotel and walked back down to the tea shop to wait for the bus back to Udaipur. While I waited I drank sweet Indian tea served up from a roaring Paraffin stove. As the time for the arrival of the bus neared I waited outside, and as I stood there a large crowd emerged from the grounds of the temple. As soon as they spotted me they crowded round and a man at the front started to point at my camera and then at the gathering throng. I was not slow to spot what was going to happen because I had experienced it before. They had obviously seen a Polaroid camera at some point in the past and were thinking that as soon as I took a photo of them, I would be able to give them a print to take home. This is always awkward because it is usually impossible to explain why you haven't been able to give them a photo.Just as the situation was getting more and more out of hand, the bus arrived with the most incredible timing and I jumped on board, grateful to be leaving the large crowd behind. We sped back to Udaipur at a much faster rate than the outward journey and were soon back at the bus station. When a rickshaw dropped me back at the Mahendra Prakash Hotel I was amazed at how happy I was to be back, I felt like I had come home.Having showered and generally tidied myself up, I went to a shop near Mukesh's art school where I bought some postcards to send to my friends from University and also a copy of Freedom At Midnight, which tells the story of the weeks leading up to India's Independence and is out of print in the UK. I then spent most of the day sitting in the courtyard of the hotel, writing postcards, listening to my walkman, drinking Pepsi and enjoying the sunshine. At some point during the day I met Harry, Sarah and Paul and discovered that they had booked a ticket on the same bus as me, which was leaving for Pushkar the next day. Raphael and I had actually met Harry at Ahmedabad station and he had been on the same train as us to Udaipur, but we hadn't recognised him when we saw him at the hotel.In the late afternoon I had tea in the restaurant of the City Palace, surrounded by portraits of the past Maharajas and smart waiters. A three piece band was playing relaxing Indian music just next to my table, the gentle tones of the sarod and sitar perfectly complimented by the unobtrusive rhythms of the tabla. My table was right next to the window and as I drank tea and listened to the haunting music, I enjoyed fabulous views across Lake Pichola. Slightly below me, the buzzards and vultures were circling, hardly needing to move their wings at all as they glided on the updraughts of warm air.Later on in the evening, I went for a meal at the roof top cafe. On the way back to the hotel, I met Sam, George and Emma and they invited me to have breakfast with them on the roof of the hotel.
Day 10 - Saturday 13th July. - Currently unfinished (notes only)9:30 – Breakfast on the roof of the hotel with Sam, Emma and George. Check out of hotel, take auto-rickshaw to the Kamlesh travel office. Catch the 13:00 private bus to Pushkar that we have booked (Harry, Sarah etc are also on this bus). Head north, countryside becomes more desert like. Journey takes about eight hours. Problem with ‘passenger tax’ on the outskirts. Have to settle for the Lake Palace hotel – a dive, room is like a prison cell. Go for a meal at the Venus restaurant, have veg. Jalfrezi – interesting taste. Come back to the cell – bad stomach.Day 11 – Sunday 14th July. - Currently unfinished (notes only).Go to the Venus restaurant for a lemon pancake and some tea. At around midday, climbed to the hilltop temple – fantastic view and butterflies [Savitri Temple]. Came down. Went to Sanjays rooftop restaurant. Spend the rest of the day reading and listening to my Walkman in the Venus restaurant. Go from their to RS Restaurant where I agreed to meet Harry, Helen, Paul and Sarah, instead in walks Raphael! The others arrive a few minutes later. Have a meal (not very good). Go to Priti restaurant so Paul and Harry can share a Bhang Lassi try to walk back to their hotel but I feel too ill and so I go back to the hotel and take a couple of Anadin, have a terrible blocked nose.Day 12 – Monday 15th July. - Currently unfinished (notes only).Feeling better, leave hotel at about 5:15 am, loads of people about due to a religious festival. Meet Raphael and get on a jeep for Ajmer, once in Ajmer get on bus for Jodhpur. See peacocks and an antelope along the way and a MIG 23 or MIG 27 fighter jet flying overhead. Arrive in Jodhpur, can see the huge fort [Meherangarh] up ahead. Stay in the Hotel Akshey. Take rickshaw up to the fort, walking down, get invited into a house for chappatis and to have our hands painted with Henna by Gita. Go back to hotel and have a meal.Day 13 – Tuesday 16th July. - Currently unfinished (notes only)Get a rickshaw up to the fort and do the tour – see the Maharajas Howdahs and babies cradles as well as some of the rooms in the fort. Go out onto the ramparts where there are fantastic views, walk down through the old city, catch a minibus to the Sardar Bazaar, meet an Indian student who shows us around the private and government (no tax) bazaars. After this we take a rickshaw out to the Umaid Bhawan Palace and see the museum but it is a bit of a disappointment. Go back to the hotel and have a meal with some Australian tourists.Day 14 – Wednesday 17th July. - Currently unfinished (notes only)At 9:00 caught a pre-arranged rickshaw out to Mandore gardens – beautiful ruins, birds and butterflies. Came back and had lunch then went to the State Bank of India in the grounds of the High Court buildings to change some money. Came back and started to feel very ill – high temp, fever, chills and pains in my joints, took some aspirin and went to bed. Violent thunder and lightning storms. Day 15 – Thursday 18th July. - Currently unfinished (notes only)Get up early and packed up, had breakfast and settled the bill, boarded a rickshaw for the Olympic cinema, got on the bus for Jaisalmer, wealthy young woman on board, as the old women got on they stroked her head. Long drive out through the desert, pass through Pokran (site of India’s first nuclear test). See Jaisalmer fort up ahead – an impressive site from the distance. Get hassled by loads of touts – I lose my temper. Walk up through the fort gates to the Hotel Paradise and share a room with Raphael, go out for a walk through the old city – its an incredible maze of alley ways and shops. Go back to hotel. Come out again in evening for a meal at the Hotel Monica – food and music are good but mosquitos are terrible – also one of the biggest crickets I have ever seen. Go back to hotel.Day 16 – Friday 19th July. - Currently unfinished (notes only)Got up quite late – watched a violent storm come racing in across the desert. Went out into the city to the Monica restaurant for breakfast. Went for a look round the Havelis – Chilza? Haveli, Nathimal Haveli and Patwon Ki Haveli and then went to the Badal Villas – Maharajas house / hotel – also went round a palace inside the fort - Ashokey Palace? Then went back hotel to rest and then to the Monica Restaurant again for dinner, Went back to the hotel.Day 17 – Saturday 20th July. - Currently unfinished (notes only)Went for breakfast at the Monica – went to the Salim Singh Haveli – great view of the fort. Hired rickshaw and went to Amar Sagar – 200 ft deep swimming pool (reflections glimmering on Pipul tree overhead) and visited the overgrown gardens and went down across the dried up lake to the Jain temple.Next went to a lake garden and ruins with lots of kids trying to sell fossils. Went back to Hotel to rest.Sunset – went to more ruins at sunset point – fantastic. Went for a meal at the restaurant.Day 18 – Sunday 21st July. - Currently unfinished (notes only)Got up and went to provisionally book our camel safari at reception. Went for breakfast at Monica restaurant. Then we went to see a few of the seven Jain temples in the fort. Marble idols and intricate sandstone carvings. Went back to the hotel to shelter from the hottest part of the day. Came out at 16:15 and went to the bus stand. Came back and went for drinks at the Monica, went back to hotel, came out for a meal at the Monica at about 8. (first went for a drink at the 8th July restaurant to see what it was like).Day 19 – Monday 22nd July. - Currently unfinished (notes only)Spent today doing a lot of not very much, got up went out for breakfast and walked around the market before going back to the hotel to sleep.At 16:30 we were outside the Hotel Rajdhani to meet Emma, Sam and George. Sorted out the plan for the camel safari. Met up again at the Monica restaurant for a meal. I think that the camel safari will be great fun.
Day 20 - Tuesday 23rd July.Raphael and I met Sam, George and Emma at the Paradise Hotel reception at 7.30 in the morning. All of our luggage that we did not take on the camel safari was locked in my hotel room, but I had decided to take a lot of my equipment with me. I may have been over cautious, but I wanted to make sure that in the event of anyone being ill I would have all of my first aid kit to hand, and that each of us would have plenty of water. When I had booked the safari I had initially asked for 15 litres of mineral water per person for the three days but the manager had assured me that 12 litres would be more than enough, and I settled for that. For my own personal equipment I decided to leave anything that was not essential in the hotel room and load everything else into my backpack, which would be tied to my camel. In addition, I took an extra 4 bottles (4 litres) of mineral water and my shampoo so that I would be able to wash my hair each morning. Among the essential pieces of equipment that I carried were my trusty bed roll, a sheet sleeping bag, my fleece jacket (I was aware that it might get very cold at night), my head torch, a Swiss army knife and of course, my shamaag and Ray Ban sunglasses to keep the intense sun off my head and out of my eyes. I Included my camera equipment on the essential list, although I wasn't sure how easy it would be to take photographs while on the camel.Despite the need for all the safeguards, I was convinced that the safari would be magical. Almost every night of my stay in Jaisalmer, the stars had shone with a brightness that I have seldom seen, and I couldn't wait to camp out in the desert underneath those clear skies. I think that everyone in the group shared this enthusiasm, and after our guides arrived, we were all quickly on our feet and walking out of the fort to the camels.Ramtillya and Luckman, our guides for the next two and a half days, lead us to the south side of the fort where our dromedary camels (the single hump variety) were sitting patiently, awaiting our arrival. They had already been loaded with the provisions; awkward cardboard boxes of mineral water and hessian sacks containing the food, pots, pans, cups and plates. Each animal had a basic howdah which had been carefully placed so that our bedding blankets were between the saddle and the camel's skin, to spread the load evenly. My pack was taken from me and tied to the back of my camel, which I later found out was called Matinu. It was then that I became fully aware that in order to do this trek, I was actually going to have to get on a camel (a creature renowned for its short temper and viscious spitting ability), sit seven feet above the ground, and ride around in the Thar Desert for two and a half days. This realisation made me feel rather apprehensive, but actually getting on my camel for the first time was sheer terror. With Matinu sitting down, I clambered on and gripped the front of the howdah as tightly as I possibly could. A few seconds later, the camel stood up first on its back legs with the result that I was pitched forward at what seemed like an impossible angle. I dangled there agonisingly for a few seconds, facing straight down at the ground and convinced that I would fall off, before Matinu managed to stand up fully and I could relax again. This performance was repeated every time I got on, and carried out in reverse to dismount.The first stage of the safari took us through the outskirts of Jaisalmer and quickly out into the desert, which was quite green in places and dotted with clumps of cacti and a plant known as "ucca". Each of our camels was roped to the one in front, and Ramtillyah and Luckman took turns to lead the foremost camel on foot, so that none of us had to worry about steering our camels. All we had to do was enjoy the desert scenery and the wonderful peace and quiet. Raphael was the exception to this arrangement because he had ridden a camel before in Jordan, and so he was allowed to take the reins himself.After a short while we stopped under the shade of a tree and met another safari coming in the opposite direction. We walked on a few yards, and came to a small murky lake where a herd of water buffalo were enjoying a swim. A local boy soon joined us, and he stooped down and drank straight from the turbid water.We carried on with our own trek; sometimes the camels were plodding over grassland, occasionally over sand and rock. Eventually, at about lunchtime, we reached the shade of a large tree, where we waited until four o'clock when the hottest part of the day had passed. The camels were unloaded and 'hobbled', which meant that their front legs were very loosely tied together with a piece of rope so that they could still walk and graze, but could not wander too far from the group. During the long wait we had lunch, which was fried vegetables and rice cakes, followed by vegetable curry and chappatis. I noticed that the water our guides were using to cook and make tea was being stored in old plastic motor oil containers! As the afternoon went by, the sun moved overhead and we continually had to move to stay under the protective shade of the tree.Lunch on the camel safari, near Jaisalmer.At about half three Ramtillyah and Luckman set off to find the camels, and by four o'clock all the equipment had been loaded and we set off. Unfortunately, our route meant that we faced straight into the sun and the heat was incredible. It felt like somebody was slowly playing a blow torch across my face, soon my eyes started to water and sting from squinting against the sun. Very soon it was too painful to open them at all, so I pulled my shamaag down over my face and rode my camel 'blind'. This was rather unnerving at first but I soon got used to the bumps and slips as I rode up and down the sides of a series of shallow rocky depressions. My camel was still roped to the one in front and so it didn't matter that I couldn't see where I was going. Fortunately, it was not long before we stopped for a short break and I was able to dry my eyes and open them again.Me on my camel ‘Matinu’, Thar Desert.It didn't seem that we had gone very far before we stopped on a large sand dune, and this was where we set up camp for the night. I realised that night would fall very quickly, so I made up my bedding and set about collecting firewood. There was plenty of dead wood lying nearby, but even so, gathering it was extremely hot work because climbing back up to the camp through the shifting sands of the dune took a lot of energy. I found a small dead shrub, with tiny dense branches which I knew would make excellent kindling, and built the rest of the campfire around that.About the same time that I finished building the fire, Ramtillyah and Luckman served supper, which was a vegetable and potato curry with chappatis. Almost as soon as it got dark, we agreed that it was time to light the fire I had built. At first I had no luck, mainly because of a strong breeze that was blowing across the desert and extinguishing the matches I was using. I finally got the fire started by first setting light to a spare luggage tag that had been in my pocket since I had arrived in Bombay. Once the fire was going, it went up like a funeral pyre, before settling down and burning until about two in the morning.The desert was beautiful under the light from the half moon, and lightning danced on the horizon. The night was very quiet and peaceful, and disturbed only occasionally by the seemingly loud drone of an insect flying past or the soft tinkling of distant cow bells. In the small hours, the stars were incredibly bright and I gazed up at them until I drifted off to sleep.
Day 21 - Wednesday 24th July.I woke up at five, washed my hair and cleaned my teeth, and then it was time to pack up the camp. The camels were loaded up and it was soon time for us all to climb onto our howdahs. It hadn't taken me long to discover that my camel was prone to temper tantrums, and these tended to occur when she had been left sitting down, but fully loaded up with equipment waiting for me to get on. What usually happened was that as I swung one leg over the howdah, Matinu would suddenly snort indignantly and stand up extremely fast. On the few occasions that this situation arose I was lucky enough to get my leg back off the howdah before Matinu stood up, but it was still very alarming. After a while I learned to recognise when one of these tantrums was likely, and then I would only half heartedly try to get on, knowing that I would soon have to leap out of the way. Despite this problem, I felt generally much more comfortable riding a camel than I have when I have been on horseback. I never thought that Matinu would bolt or try to throw me off like a horse might, the camels struck me as being much more predictable. The camel also has the advantage of having evolved to suit its environment perfectly and its padded leathery feet make it sure-footed in the sand, whereas a horse has to deal with unnatural horseshoes and tarmac.Sam and her camel.The route for the morning was long, and took us across scrub and some quite rocky terrain. After a while we all dismounted for some reason, and each had to lead our own camel. This was slightly scary when descending the sand dunes because the camel would go slowly at first, and then suddenly charge down the slope, making it vital that you were going at least as fast as your camel if you did not want to be run over! We walked for what seemed like a long time before arriving at a tree where we had a short break. These brief rests were essential, because our camels were not equipped with stirrups and so after riding for any length of time everyone's thighs ached terribly. In addition, one of the ropes that held my howdah together cut into the inside of my thigh for the whole safari, resulting in a painful bruise. After the break we pressed on through the heat and came to a small lake. Unfortunately, there was no shade there and so we had to walk a short distance further to the shelter of a large tree. This was where we had lunch and waited until four o' clock, as we had the day before.On our camels in the Thar Desert. Photo by Georgina Round-Turner.A long trek followed lunch, during which our direction changed dramatically. The digital compass on my watch indicated that we had turned back towards Jaisalmer and had therefore reached the furthest point of our safari. By now I had a terrible stomach ache, and by bad luck it worsened just as our guides told us to dismount and we had to lead our camels on a long walk. Our destination turned out to be a village called Boo, which was well built with brick houses and electricity. On the outskirts was a large circular water trough and we each had to lead our camels to the water and make them drink. At this point I was almost doubled up with the pain from my guts, the heat was astonishing and I was surrounded by a group of local kids who were pointing at my Ray Ban sunglasses and shouting "One test! One test!" To add to my problems the reins of my camel had dragged on the floor and were now caked in green diahorea from the one in front. When I found out that we were to continue on foot from the water trough, I realised that I was going to have to do something to try and improve my situation and so the rest of the group waited, while I went off to go to the toilet. I ducked down behind a large clump of cacti, and when I emerged I was met with the disheartening sight of the rest of the group plodding away into the distance. I set off immediately to rejoin the others, but my stomach was still very painful and my progress was slow. I could see that Raphael was now also on foot a short distance behind the main party, but still a long way in front of me. At that point I felt totally exhausted, and it was the only moment in the whole safari when enjoyment turned to plain discomfort. However, summoning a reserve of energy from somewhere, I broke into a run and caught up with Raphael and the rest of the group. Mercifully, I got back onto my camel and we all trekked off towards the camp site, which was a fairly short distance away on top of a large sand dune.When we reached camp I was too exhausted to build a camp fire as I had done the previous night and I still felt quite ill. Fortunately my stomach pains were eased a great deal when George produced a bottle of Collis Brown (a mixture of peppermint oil and liquid morphine) from her first aid kit, and gave me a couple of spoonfuls. Raphael was also finding it hard going, he had lost his appetite completely, and looked very drawn and pale.As night approached we set up our bedding so that we all slept parallel to each other in a line. Raphael was on the end of the line to my left and Sam was on the right. As had happened the night before, large insects occasionally landed on us as we slept. This did not bother Sam, George and Emma at all, but absolutely terrified Raphael and I. One of us would often leap up, swearing, cursing and thrashing about trying to get rid of the winged horror that had chosen us as a landing pad. Because of the frequency of this performance, I was not unduly worried when Raphael suddenly jumped up, shortly after we had all managed to get to sleep. However, a split second later he started to shout "Rowan! Rowan! Get Up!"Now I was worried. There was an element of real terror in his voice which was instantly apparent. I knew from that moment on, that whatever had crawled onto him was very nasty indeed. His next word was one that you really do not want to hear when lying under the stars, in a cotton sleeping bag, in the Thar Desert."Snake!"With that, we all jumped up in an instant and put a good ten feet between ourselves and the spot where we had been sleeping. The only artificial light that we had on the safari was my head torch, and I had slept with it next to my head, which was where the snake was. This meant that we had no way of seeing where the snake had gone or whether it was hiding in any of our possessions. As a result, Raphael was the only person who ever actually saw it. Of course, we will never know what sort of snake it was, but the fact that the arid regions of India are home to some of the world's most dangerous species such as the Cobra, Russell's Viper (notorious for attacking even when unprovoked) and the saw-scaled viper, left us knowing that it may well have been deadly.We stood barefoot in the sand, with only the moonlight to see by, until Ramtillyah and Luckman managed to find a long branch with which to pick up the head torch. They then meticulously went through all of our equipment that had been lying on the sand to ensure that it was safe.When we began to think that the snake had gone, Raphael told us what had happened. Just as he had been about to go to sleep, the snake had actually slithered over his chest and gone on towards my head. Raphael had leapt up and shouted his warning when it was just inches from my face.Our guides examined the sand next to where my head had been and pointed out a curved impression which they were sure had been made by the snake, but it was hard to make out. We asked them what we would have done had one of us been bitten, and they said that we would have had to load up the camels and ride for Jaisalmer as fast as possible. Not only would that have been a very long way, but the hospital in Jaisalmer is reputedly one of the worst and dirtiest in India.We gathered up our scattered possessions, and set up camp further along the dune. The night we passed there was an uncomfortable and uneasy one. A strong wind whipped the sand into our faces all night and I could feel the particles of it between my teeth and in my ears. Ramtillyah volunteered to act as a watchman to try and make sure that no more snakes entered the camp, but despite his good intentions, he slept soundly until morning. In contrast, Raphael sat bolt upright for most, if not all of the night. Before Luckman went to bed, he told us that there were several armed gangs of smugglers operating in the desert, although whether or not this was true I cannot say. We were sleeping quite close to the camels, and all night they made loud bellowing noises. Occasionally one of them would trot up and down and I was quite worried that we might be stamped on as we slept. In the small hours the temperature dropped, and our guides fetched some blankets for us. The blankets were warm, but smelled strongly of the camels that they had been tied to.The drama with the snake had put everyone on edge, and I only managed to sleep by convincing myself that the chances of another one straying into our camp had to be remote. Despite this, I was glad when the breeze died down and colour slowly began to return to the desert as the dawn arrived.
Day 22 - Thursday 25th July.The final day of the safari was a 20km trek back to Jaisalmer, and we set off in high spirits. By now I felt confident enough to no longer grip my howdah so tightly as I rode my camel, and I even managed to take my SLR camera out of its bag, set it up and take some photographs while on the move. This meant that I got some good shots of our group on their camels, with Jaisalmer's fort ahead of us on the horizon. My new found confidence was tested to the absolute limit when our guides announced that they were going to make us ride our camels at a fast canter. I had to hold on tight again, because for the most part I found that I was in the air and only occasionally came crashing back down onto the howdah during the run. With no stirrups to brace myself against, I'm still amazed that I didn't fall off.Heading back to Jaisalmer.The fort loomed ever larger on the horizon, and all too soon we found ourselves crossing the busy road and arriving back at our starting point. Sadly, it was time to say goodbye to Ramtillyah and Luckman who had been such brilliant guides and companions. All of us agreed that the safari had been the most memorable part of our journeys so far and that the two and a half days had passed extremely quickly.I then had just half an hour to check out of my hotel room, but the bus to Jaipur that Raphael and I were booked on did not leave until five in the evening. Luckily, we were able to leave our backpacks in the room at the Paradise Hotel that Sam, George and Emma had just moved into for their stay in Jaisalmer.I collected the tickets for Jaipur that I had booked for Raphael and I, and then the two of us met George and Emma at the Monica Restaurant for a meal. Shortly after we finished, Raphael and I collected our belongings and I arranged to meet Sam, George and Emma again in Delhi.Before long, Raphael and I were crammed into the back of an auto-rickshaw for the bumpy journey down out of the fort to the bus stand. I had been dreading the bus journey to Jaipur, but it was actually much worse than I had feared. It took about thirteen hours, travelling right through the night, and exactly retracing our steps as far as Pushkar, before heading north east to our final destination . Fortunately, I was tired enough to drift off to a semi-sleep, despite the discomfort. Consequently, for me the journey to Jaipur is a half-remembered nightmare of glaring headlights and blaring truck horns, accompanied by the incessant shaking and rattling of the bus. In the small hours we stopped at a large roadside cafe, and my bad stomach forced me to visit it's grotty toilet which was inhabited by a horrible giant cricket. As I sat on a charpoy by the road, drinking Pepsi, I saw a huge beetle dash across the tarmac. It was easily the biggest insect I have ever seen.Re-boarding the bus we continued on our way, and I woke some hours later to find that dawn was just breaking, and that, to my immense relief, we were rolling through the suburbs of Jaipur.
Day 23 – Friday 26th July. - Currently unfinished (notes only)Rolled through the outskirts of Jaipur at dawn. Got a rickshaw to the Umaid Bhawan Guest House at first had to share a room with Raphael but later changed to a room of my own.Re-organised pack / slept til about 12:30, then we took a cycle rickshaw through heavy traffic to the Hawa Mahal, good views of the city, monkeys, get good view of the façade from a roof opposite. Next we went to the Jantar Mantar, the huge observatory and then got an auto-rickshaw back to the Hotel, had a drink – talked to David who is here on business but says he can’t give his money away. Took a pre-arranged rickshaw to the train station to make our reservation for Agra, queue at window marked ‘Foreign tourists, handicapped people, senior citizens, Freedom Fighters and MPs / MLAs’. Freedom fighters are those that took part in the struggle for independence from Britain.Go back to hotel and fall into a deep sleep. Woken by Raphael knocking on my door at 20:00, time to go to restaurant for an evening meal. Have a very nice chicken saag and some tea. Get cycle rickshaw back to the hotel. Make phone call to home, collect laundry from hotel reception. Read the Times of India.Day 24 – Saturday 27th July. - Currently unfinished (notes only)Meet the rickshaw man at 9, go to Thomas Cook office so that Raphael can change money and then to the City Palace. City Palace – Mubarak Mahal – (Clothes museum) – armoury, Diwan-I-Am (art gallery of carpets from Lahore and miniature paintings) and Diwan –I- Kas (with two pots – largest pieces of silverware in world – used by the Maharaja to transport Ganges water during a trip to England.Go to Amber Fort- lake-garden. Walk up steps to the gate – elephants in courtyard. Go through Ganesh Pol to second court – great views. Go higher up to the Maharajas apartment – winter bedroom ceiling illuminated for us by a guide with candles – shimmering points of light. Go up higher and see good views but finding the way down is very confusing. Get back to rickshaw get hassled into going to a carpet shop – shown how they make the carpets, get out without buying anything.At hotel meet French chap and some Germans (student doctors going to Ajmer hospital) French guy describes travel in Haiti – guinea worms. Take a rest then go to the Handi restaurant.Day 25 – Sunday 28th July. - Currently unfinished (notes only)Met the rickshaw driver at 9, went to the Laxmi Narayan marble temple (stopped briefly outside the famous Raj Mandir Cinema on the way), the temple was built by the Birla family. Then we went to the Central museum which houses a jumbled collection of exhibits, the best being a display of miniature paintings, the other items were poorly labeled or of little interest.From there we went to the outskirts of the city, to Galta gate and the monkey temple (group of temples) in a deep mountain gorge part of which was filled with water so that men and women could wash in separate areas.Went to a cheap eaterie then to the Gaitor cenotaph in the city and then to the centaph on the outskirts in an extremely smokey industrial area.Went back to the hotel at around 14:30 and faced a long wait until leaving at 10 for the train. Talked to an Austrian teacher, she had been ill with a high fever for 5 days and had spent the last 24 hours in hospital on a drip. She had been taken there by a man from the hotel who I took to be the owner, Wing Commander B. S. Rathore, a doctor in the Indian Air Force.Talked to the French chap, got a rickshaw to the station – bought Cadburys chocolate on the platform. Got onto our 2nd class sleeper carriage – my bed was half way up the wall. Spent an uneasy night with my legs propped up on my pack, using my shamaag as a pillow.Day 26 – Monday 29th July. - Currently unfinished (notes only)Dawn breaks and our train is making good progress through Uttar Pradesh, we can see that the rain has been heavy here – lots of big pools of stagnating water.Pass lines of men and women defecating by the line – in fields and in the outskirts of Agra itself. Roll into Agra fort station – get a rickshaw to the Sheela Hotel, on the way we get our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal acroos the Yamuna River – shrouded in mist.Arrived at the Sheela Hotel, had breakfast and a shower came out into garden to listen to Walkman and write diary – talked to UK couple who used to live in Nigeria, they tell me India is dirtier than Africa and that Delhi has worse poverty than Bangkok. Kingfisher lands on the wire running over the garden!Went for a sleep, woken by Raphael, go into the shade in the garden and have some food, go to rest until 20:30, go to the only Restaurant – fantastic food and beer, come back, full moon, go to the banks of the Yamuna river to see the Taj Mahal. Sit in garden in the moonlight.Day 27 – Tuesday 30th July. - Currently unfinished (notes only)Morning devoted to bureaucracy – first the train station to reserve our tickets out (me to Delhi and Raphael to Varanassi), then the General Post Office to post our postcards. Then the bank to change money.Went back to the hotel, had lunch and then finally went to see the Taj. Near the end of our visit dramatic black thunder clouds raced overhead.Rested in hotel – in evening went to the Only restaurant (haggled with rickshaw driver). Sat out on lawn at first with flashes of lightning eventually moved inside, food was superb, even had the chocolate ice cream.Came back to hotel – sat under the cane hut and talked to Raphael.Day 28 – Wednesday 31st July. - Currently unfinished (notes only)Woke up feeling OK, but soon struck by a nasty stomach ache that got worse and worse. Writhed around in agony in my room until 14:00. Then went for a very quick walk around the red fort - felt ill so came back, rested in room. Evening went to Only restaurant. Had a chat with Raph about Commonwealth.Day 29 – Thursday 1st August. - Currently unfinished (notes only)The halfway point of my trip. At 10:30 took auto – rickshaw to Idgah bus stand, got on bus for Fatehpur Sikri (the most clapped out bus yet), journey took 1 hour. Arrived in the bazaar area – extremely dirty, walked up through side street to Jami Masjid – honey bees over entrance, marble screen and beautiful mother of pearl in tomb of holy man inside. Look around Sikri – interesting but not especially impressive. Go back to bus stand – rumours of no bus because of flooding / poor condition of alternative road, walk to train station and buy a ticket for the 16:30 to Agra Fort.Get back, take rickshaw to hotel – have a pepsi, rest and then at 8 go to the Only restaurant. Come back at 21:50, sit in garden till 22:30, then say goodbye to Raphael, 1 month of traveling together is over.Day 30 – Friday 2nd August. - Currently unfinished (notes only)Got up at 5 – packed and checked out, took auto-rickshaw to Agra Cantonment railway station, confusion on platform as to whether I should jump on the Grand Trunk Express going from Madras to New Delhi but decide to stay put. Board the Mahwa Express to New Delhi, countryside is very green with paddy fields, cranes, women working in the fields and small straw huts, pass through Mathura and Faridabad (extremely bad slum and lagoons of floating garbage) before reaching New Delhi at about midday. Rickshaw driver refuses to take me to Hotel 55, instead insists I must enquire at the tourist office (doubtless so he will get lots of commission) end up at the Woodland Hotel in Paharganj. Take a rickshaw to the central reservations office on Chelmsford Road, in the queue talk about cricket. Get my ticket for Amritsar on the 5th. Go back to hotel, have a meal but it is terrible so get a rickshaw out to the main bazaar of Paharganj to the Appetite Restaurant, policeman stops us entering the bazaar so I continue on foot, very narrow crowded with rickshaws, bullock carts, bicycles – a maze. Find the restaurant and order spaghetti bolognaise. Go back to the hotel and do my laundry. Go to bed – wake up completely time disoriented. I estimate it to be 11 at night when in fact it is 6 in the morning!Day 31 – Saturday 3rd August. - Currently unfinished (notes only)Today I had to pre-empt my bus tour of Delhi on the fourth by seeing the sights that I did not think would be covered. So at about 10 am I took a rickshaw to Rajpath, the heart of Lutyens’ Imperial Delhi, went up to the gates of the Rashtrapati Bhawan, now the residence of the Prime Minister of India, but formerly the house of the British Viceroy, next I asked the driver to take me to the Chandani Chowk in the heart of Old Delhi, I explored the bazaar and saw the exterior of the Jammi Masjid. Went back to the hotel and then to the Sheraton 5 star hotel to use the pool. Have to launch a charm offensive to get in and I pay through the nose but the pool is fantastic, talk to an Indian guy who has been to Pakistan and London.Came out and race across the city to my hotel, change and then jump into a waiting rickshaw to go to the Taj Mahal hotel for 16:30, to meet Sam, George and Emma at 5. Wait until 6 but they didnt make it. Have a meal and go back to my hotel in Paharganj.Day 32 – Sunday 4th August. - Currently unfinished (notes only)At 09:40 taken to the waiting a/c bus for the city tour, first went round the red fort through Lahori gate, they were busy preparing the barricades and loudspeakers for the Independence day address by the prime minister. Drove past the Jammi Masjid, went to the park where Nehru and Indhira Ghandi were cremated, then Raj Ghat, then Raj Path, then the Bhai house of worship, Qutab Minar, and then to the Lakshmi Narayan (Birla) temple (didn’t go in, sat in the coach instead).Get back to the hotel and spent the evening relaxing, ready for the long train journey tomorrow.
Day 33 - Monday 5th August.I checked out of the hotel at half past five in the morning, and took an auto-rickshaw to New Delhi railway station. The train to Amritsar left at about seven o' clock and I settled down in my first class seat and tried to make myself comfortable for the nine hour journey that lay ahead. Unfortunately, although I thought I had found the correct seat, I was in the wrong carriage and it wasn't long before I was asked to move. Then I found out that I had been counted as a 'no show' and the seat I had booked had been given to someone else. There was nowhere for me to sit and so I moved myself and my pack to the space between two of the carriages and prepared to stand for nine hours. The sight of a visitor to India being placed in such discomfort was evidently too much for the group of businessmen who had asked me to move. They found a seat for me, bought me a coffee and one of them, Rajiv, even gave me one of his home made sandwiches.The journey was relatively uneventful, and we passed quickly through the green flat fields of the states of Haryana and the Punjab. In places we ran into very heavy monsoon downpours. The time passed quite slowly and I was glad when we finally rolled into the station at Amritsar Junction.As soon as I stepped down from the train I was met by a taxi driver, who actually had a large car instead of an auto-rickshaw. I asked him to take me to Mrs. Bhandari's Guest House, in the Cantonment. I had chosen to go to that particular hotel because I had seen it on a recent BBC TV series, which followed the old hippie trail from Turkey to India, and it had seemed a very pleasant place to stay. Before long the taxi driver had dropped me at the entrance to the guest house and before he left, he agreed to take me to the border with Pakistan at 10 o' clock on the seventh of August.I was met by the guest house manager. He was running the hotel at that time, during the absence of the famous 80 year old Mrs. Bhandari. She usually oversees the whole operation from her kitchen, or as she calls it, "Commando Bridge". The manager's English was superb and he was very welcoming and friendly. After he had recorded all of my passport details he showed me to my room and then to the covered area in the garden where the meals were served. Adjoining this was a block that contained a large refrigerator full of cold drinks, including beer. The manager explained that the guest house operated an honesty system, whereby guests could help themselves to a drink at any time, make a note of it on the pad provided, and the charge would be added to the bill at the end. Next I was shown the small open air swimming pool which guests could use as often as they liked after one payment of Rs 50. I was beginning to realise that I was going to like Amritsar.I went back to my room, unpacked some of my things and was contemplating going for a swim in the pool, when monsoon rains suddenly struck. The downpour was ferocious; looking out of the window I could see the water cascading off the corrugated iron roof of the next block, and forming a torrent across the concrete below. Very soon the electricity supply failed and so I lit one of the candles provided and sat out the storm, which must have lasted for at least an hour and a half.When the rain subsided, I changed into my swimming shorts and emerged from my room to use the pool. The garden was now flooded, and I trudged through the ankle deep water and then climbed the steps to the pool. When I got in I found that the temperature of the water was perfect and I spent a glorious hour swimming lengths. The garden was very peaceful, and even though a road was just over the wall that was next to the pool, the tranquillity was broken only very occasionally by a moped or gently squeaking cycle rickshaw passing by.After the swim, I had dinner and talked to a couple from the U.S.A., they told me that later in the evening they would visit the Golden Temple, and the hotel manager arranged for a rickshaw to meet me later on, so that I could go with them.At 9 o' clock the cycle rickshaw arrived to take me into the heart of the city, to the sacred Golden Temple. The streets were earily silent as we passed through the old town, and for much of the way were very badly flooded from the earlier rains. I felt very guilty as my driver cycled ankle deep through the water, while I sat comfortably in the back, totally dry. It is a very strange sensation to be a passenger in a cycle rickshaw, especially at night when the streets are very quiet. The silence of the rickshaw itself, and the fact that you are not contributing any effort to your own forward motion, gives you the impression of floating ghost like through the darkness.